Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
A number of years back, either before the divorce or, financial considerations surely being in flux, during it, my father wrote the actor Paul Newman and requested a grant. The sum of money he was asking for wasn’t exactly a MacArthur “Genius” grant, though that was its obvious inspiration. No, my father, being a reasonably talented mystery writer who had achieved a modicum of success in his field, was writing Newman, an actor who, though wildly successful, had always gotten by more on charisma and roles tailored to suit his limitations than any soul-searing gift, and asking for a “Pretty Good” grant. He wanted from Paul Newman a small amount of cash, which Newman could doubtless afford and which, judging by his passable but well-intentioned line of charitable spaghetti sauces, he seemed eager to part with. He only requested a small amount because, firstly, as a family we were doing fine and, secondly, we weren’t talking about genius being rewarded here. We were talking about “pretty good”-ness being adequately compensated and encouraged. After all, my dad figured, genius can’t be forced and the world seemed to be bending over backwards to reward complete garbage. Why not consider the middle ground, the better than average, The Pretty Good?
In a perfect world, of course, it would have been Robert Redford who had the spaghetti sauce and the soft heart, but life is rarely so tidy. Paul Newman, through a representative, respectfully declined.
I am my father’s son. Pretty good-ness might just run through the males of my family. My mom might be the greatest nurse practitioner ever and my sister might be the greatest third grade teacher in the history of third grade teachers (I certainly hold both my sister and mother in high esteem) but NME has yet to provide rankings for their respective genres, so who’s to know? For myself… I am pretty good and I in turn love those that are also pretty good.
In a world where every goddamned band that every goddamned chimp with a keyboard grew up listening to is considered “classic,” “great,” or “under-appreciated,” I sing the better-than-average, the certain something, the perhaps-appreciated-just-right. And I am not damning with faint praise; the pretty good is my preference. The great irritate me, the truly bad has its fun side but it’s not what I’m talking about, and the mediocre rule the earth like the Illuminati in plain sight, so I’ll defend the pretty good. Not that anyone’s attacking them — why would they? The pretty good hurt no one and spread reasonable amounts of joy to a fair amount of people while the majority aggressively gives not a shit, so enraptured are they by the perceived greatness of, say, U2, the comforting terribleness of Nü Metal (using a safe anachronism so as to not offend…) and the nebulous banality of the festival headliners and radio mainstays that constitute the concrete that surrounds us.
What makes a band a praiseworthy “pretty good” and why celebrate the designation? Would any band actually want to be considered thus? Isn’t the whole point of rock & roll to aim for the stars, punch through the ceiling and kiss without consent the face of God? I’ll get to the first question, I’ll also get to the second, but as to the tertiary question: rock & roll is pointless; that’s its only redeeming quality. One has to have been successfully brainwashed by false history to ascribe to it qualities like rebellion or ambition, or any inherent qualities at all. Rock & roll is like the sky: pretty, usually kind of boring, but capable of containing multitudes of, uh, fuck… birds and clouds, and birds and clouds can, uh, be as ambitious as they please.
Anyway… being good is nothing to fear. This is not the “well, a 6.9 is pretty good considering…” of PR flacks and critics looking to avoid a beating. My pretty good is actually really good, adjusted to suit a world where victims are heroes and “genius” is tossed around like rationalizations at a Woody Allen casting call. I’m trying to push back at hyperbole, Sisyphean as that may seem, and just love what I love without having to elevate it to godhead status.
I consider a band “pretty good” if they move me in the way that my peers appear to be moved by canon acts (Radiohead, Rolling Stones, et al), meaning they give me that tingle or ache from the spine to the brainpan that conjures up adolescence without the high school beatings, but that, despite my heart soaring at their songs, I don’t feel I could reasonably call “better” than, say, Led Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen. I realize all taste is subjective (zzzzzzzzzz…) but I live in and accept the world. Not all things can be equal. I am not as smart or as strong or as handsome as I’d like to be so it’s hardly a crushing blow for me to accept that Eleventh Dream Day aren’t as good as Neil Young, Screeching Weasel (pre-girl punching, obvs) aren’t as good as the Ramones, Pegboy aren’t better than Hüsker Dü, and Cop Shoot Cop aren’t better than Throbbing Gristle. (As I was writing this piece my girlfriend said, “Oh when you said ‘average,’ Cop Shoot Cop was the first band I thought of.”) I’m not looking to win an argument in a bar that’s unwinnable… I just like all these bands better.
What makes these B-minus to B-plus bands the top of the class in Zachary Automotive School is their failure. I suppose there’s a bit of hatred of perfection and beauty in my predilection. The character I most empathize with in a novel is the monk in Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion who, oppressed by the perfect beauty of his temple, burns it down (I empathize less with Mishima’s fascism, but that’s a separate topic…). It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of less capable or ambitious bands as more honest; that there’s honesty in not quite being capable of what you strive at, or even in lacking the ambition to strive at all. But that’s not it. I have no issue with insincerity and I don’t believe that better and grander bands are somehow dishonest. It’s just that I don’t believe them anymore. They’re too high up the mountain for their music to mean much to me. I don’t want to be saved by God — I’m more than capable — but I want occasionally to be helped along by a friend or a cool wheelbarrow. Even punk, which was supposed to eliminate the canon, is so chock-full of “classic” bands that it’s hard to breathe sometimes. The shadows of all those Ramones leaning against all those brick walls. So please don’t misunderstand me: while I am deeply grateful that musical giants walk the earth, I just prefer the company of ogres and the occasional kobold — if he’s sassy and keeps it under three minutes and 30 seconds.
Am I damning fine bands with faint praise by ghettoizing them within the pretty good category? I don’t know. That’s why, besides the obvious factor of my having come of age in the ’90s, I’m mainly listing bands that are not terribly active. (For today’s bands, yeah, I’d much rather listen to Iceage and Austerity Program than, shit, who’s considered great now? Still U2 and Radiohead? Christ… still? I guess Kanye West is our greatest living artist that I don’t particularly want to listen to, but his outsized-ness is so entertaining that it feels weird to group him with the bloat of talent I steadfastly avoid.) Just because I embrace pretty goodness in all its forms doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to do the same. So if any past or present member of Eleventh Dream Day or Pegboy is hurt by the designation, I apologize. I rock both El Moodio (1993) and Strong Reaction (1991) at least a few times a month.
What does it say about someone when they prefer James Tate to John Ashbery, Sisters of Mercy to Joy Division? Am I hopelessly callow and trying to be proud of it? Has my contrary nature finally solidified as an aesthetic to the degree that I’m entirely untrustworthy except as an indicator of what height to aim higher from? To all these questions I answer “yeah, probably” but what can one do? I am the never-quite-right clay that God breathed just enough life into. My spirit shines, sure, but I would measure it against the bright-enough-to-fool-you glow of a will-o’-the-wisp, not the inarguable blazing beam of a lighthouse. But, and let’s just consider this for a moment, what if I’m right in my tastes and everyone else is wrong? What if my deeply held and childish belief that I’m the sane one is borne out by history? After all, Black Sabbath were mocked when they first existed. Then Dio-fronted Black Sabbath were mocked when they existed. And now both are considered great.
So get that Cop Shoot Cop tattoo now — you’ll thank me later, I promise. Fuck the meek and fuck the strong; the just-about-right and the really-quite-likable might someday rule the earth. They already rule where it matters most; in the cut-out bin of my heart.